My idea of the perfect chicken salad is firmly rooted in my Southern upbringing. It's the centerpiece at a bridal luncheon, plated on Lenox Eternal, eaten with Francis I sterling and wiped from delicate Southern Belle mouths with starched linens. A few weeks ago, Francis Lam posted on Salon.com about the proper method of poaching chicken in order to achieve the perfect chicken salad and 'fessed up that he thinks chicken salad is sexy.
I love chicken salad, but I can't say that it's particularly sexy food. For a Southern belle, there's a contextual burden: chicken salad is bound up in too many memories of lunches with Mom at Rich's Magnolia Room in downtown Atlanta. (Did I hear a sob out there? We'll talk later.). There are, of course, Great Chicken Salad moments in Literature. If you've ever read "A Southern Belle Primer: or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma" by Maryln Schwartz, then you know that you can never put dark meat in your chicken salad and still hold voting privileges with the Junior League. The perfect chicken salad is a plot point in chick-lit mystery author Mary Kay Andrews' rollicking novel "Little Bitty Lies." Beyond the Grave Chicken Salad is, pardon the pun, to die for.
I rarely attempt it at home, especially since my family is happy with the Almond Tarragon Chicken Salad from Publix, one of the few packaged foods I will purchase, although I personally find the salad to be overwhelmingly salty. On a recent supermarket trip, with the thought of chicken salad in the back of my mind, I purchased a pair of three-pound birds for about $3 apiece. The first became the centerpiece of my standard roasted chicken dinner: a brined, butter-basted, heat-blasted bird; accompanied by homemade mashed potatoes with individual lakes of from-scratch gravy. Although the remaining bird was due for poaching, I decided to brine it just the same as my roasted bird.
I picked this technique up from Cook's Illustrated, which seems to brine everything that clucks. (The test cooks are also obsessed with thyme, but that's another matter). I take a large plastic container, put 1/4 cup Kosher salt and 1/4 cup brown sugar in the bottom and pour in about three or four cups of water, being careful that the chicken will not displace liquid clear out of the container. I remove the giblets and clean up the fat around the cavity a bit, then submerge the bird. If more water is needed to cover the bird, pour it in now. This goes in the fridge for at least two hours and no more than 10. (I recall a saline-intense experience with a bird that was left in brine for 24 hours. I won't make that mistake again.)
I then followed Francis' technique for the perfect poach and the resulting chicken was the most succulent, tender bird, ever. I'm not saying the brine made a difference, but I will definitely do the brine and poach together again.
I pulled the meat from the chicken, using the white meat in my chicken salad - enough mayonnaise to bind, the juice of half a lemon, and for crunch, thinly sliced celery and sliced almonds, finishing with a pinch of salt and a few cranks of the pepper mill. The chicken salad was, as my grandmother, Kitty Warren, a Birmingham society lady whose sterling pattern was Calvert by Kirk, would say "out of this world." Hear "world" as "wuld" drawn out into at least four syllables.
I saved the dark meat for soup - just adding chopped celery and onions, along with the chicken, seasoned with salt and pepper. For an investment of three dollars, along with a handful of vegetables and pantry ingredients, I had tasty lunches for a week. Looking at this delicious food on my everyday Fiestaware kind of makes me want to iron the linen napkins and pull out Kitty's silver and my Lenox china...